What should a printer print?

Over at their blog, i.Materialise (a 3D printing shop) brags about not taking an order. The post is “ATTENTION: ATM skimming device.” It opens:

There is no doubt that 3D printing is a versatile tool for materializing your 3D ideas. Unfortunately, those who wish to break the law can also try to use our technology. We recently received an order which bore a strong resemblance to an ATM skimming device. Basically, the customer placed a 3D print order for a device similar to the one below which is inserted in an ATM machine.

The plastic part can be attached to an ATM machine and with the appropriate hardware and tapped keyboard can scan cards and get personal data. In most cases, such a device does not prevent the cardholder from withdrawing funds from their account, but as their card has been scanned, it can later be reproduced and funds can be stolen from their account.

Fortunately, our engineers were quick to react, and after communication with the customer, the decision was made to decline the order. We do not support criminal activity and will do everything in our power to prevent possible crimes.

The choice that i.Materialise has made is their business. And I appreciate the impulse to protect people from the potentially negative side effects of their awesome business. At the same time, I think it’s a thought provoking and questionable decision for a whole slew of reasons:

  • There are legitimate uses for an ATM skimmer part. For example, as a security expert, I might want such a thing to wave around at conferences. Bank employees might want some for training people on what to look out for. (This is somewhat mitigated by their reaching out, but do I want a business that makes judgement calls about what I print? Maybe I’ll take my adult toy business elsewhere, rather than thinking about what it means for their engineers to be “quick to react.”)
  • The public needs to start to understand that physical objects like this are coming. As 3D printing becomes common, many things will become easier to spoof and fake. Caveat emptor will return. I expect we’ll see a race between high and low volume manufacturers where the high volume folks will specialize in things that are hard to make at home, perhaps using things translucent plastics, toxic ingredients and/or aluminum and titanium, both of which require high temperatures.
  • The banking industry needs to understand that skimmers are getting insanely realistic, and they would be fools to rely on the good graces of 3d printing firms. Skimmers are already so realistic that they’re being installed on in-bank ATMs. Banks are going to need to figure out what to do about that. I figure they can go seamless curvy metal, settle on a single card slot design and roll it out, or start hiring mural painters to customize each ATM machine. Banks will also find it increasingly expensive to stay with magstripe + PIN.
  • This may set a precedent for i.Materialize to not be a “common printer” but a co-conspirator in production. (I believe the company is in Belgium, so their mileage will vary.) In the US, we have a concept of a common carrier, that is, one that will take all customers who can pay. You can choose to discriminate, but if you do, you’re answerable for it. If i.Materialise produces a part that’s used in a future crime, they’ve set a precedent that their engineers should have prevented it. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to answer in court for the statement that we’d “do everything in our power to prevent possible crimes.”

But, it’s their business, and their choice to make. It’s important to understand that 3D printing is getting faster, cheaper and more exciting every year, and that’s going to lead to a lot of chaos emerging.

I’m not aware of anything that makes it unlikely that there will be commercial, inexpensive home 3d printers in 5-10 years. Many of those will be based on open source software like RepRap, just as many inexpensive home routers either ship with or advertise support for dd-wrt. Those home devices will print ATM skimmer covers because it will be easy to remove code that tries to censor what can be printed. They’ll also print bomb parts, “drug paraphernalia,” and print-at-home Star Wars toys. Sorry, Kenner! And Pottery Barn, your days of selling glazed clay may be coming to an end. Later on, we’ll be able to print with easily worked metals like copper, silver or zinc, and those patented cables will be conspicuous consumption.

What’s happening to music and books will happen to physical things. The experience (the concert, the cruise with the band) becomes part of the artist’s revenue stream. Etsy will replace WalMart, because it will be cheaper to print plastics at home than to print them in China, ship them and warehouse them. And you’ll be able to buy plastic and clay that you know are BPA-free, or whatever the latest fad is. You’ll get your circuits or other harder things at shops like Metrix:Create Space. What you’ll pay for, and what Etsy is set up to deliver, is artistry and uniqueness.

Most of us in what’s left of the first world will be able to print the things we want, in the colors, designs and customizations we want. We’ll be better off for it. GDP will likely go down while our standard of living goes up.

Whichever way all this goes, lots of chaos is going to emerge, and we’re going to live in interesting times.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for catching the story.)

2 thoughts on “What should a printer print?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Emergent Chaos » Blog Archive » What should a printer print? -- Topsy.com

  2. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with manufacturers making judgement calls on what they sell and to whom.

    There’s plenty of legitimate uses for a paring knife, but I wouldn’t sell one to a five-year-old.

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